Voices + Images: Reactions To The Death Of Osama bin Laden

Compiled by Arturo R. García

For decades, we have held in contempt those who actively celebrate death. When we’ve seen video footage of foreigners cheering terrorist attacks against America, we have ignored their insistence that they are celebrating merely because we have occupied their nations and killed their people. Instead, we have been rightly disgusted — not only because they are lauding the death of our innocents, but because, more fundamentally, they are celebrating death itself. That latter part had been anathema to a nation built on the presumption that life is an “unalienable right.”

But in the years since 9/11, we have begun vaguely mimicking those we say we despise, sometimes celebrating bloodshed against those we see as Bad Guys just as vigorously as our enemies celebrate bloodshed against innocent Americans they (wrongly) deem as Bad Guys. Indeed, an America that once carefully refrained from flaunting gruesome pictures of our victims for fear of engaging in ugly death euphoria now ogles pictures of Uday and Qusay’s corpses, rejoices over images of Saddam Hussein’s hanging and throws a party at news that bin Laden was shot in the head.

This is bin Laden’s lamentable victory — he has changed America’s psyche from one that saw violence as a regrettable-if-sometimes-necessary act into one that finds orgasmic euphoria in news of bloodshed. In other words, he’s helped drag us down into his sick nihilism by making us like too many other bellicose societies in history — the ones that aggressively cheer on killing, as long as it is the Bad Guy that is being killed.
– David Sirota, Salon

It was a joke that turned out to be shockingly topical on [Seth] Meyers’ part, though a decade-long search for the terrorist mastermind certainly warrants the occasional bit of humor about his evasive techniques.

Meyers quipped: “People think bin Laden is hiding in the Hindu Kush, but did you know that every day from 4 to 5 he hosts a show on C-SPAN?”

Post-punchline, Obama gave a toothy smile — and was he even blushing? Perhaps his look was one of genuine surprise to hear bin Laden’s name come up in a joke, knowing secretly what was happening in Abbottabad. Perhaps he was just responding heartily to the humor. One thing’s for certain: we wouldn’t want to be across the table from Barack in Vegas.
– Nick Carbone, Time

Courtesy of The Atlantic

Here, you know, I think Republicans should stand up and certainly salute Barack Obama for making some — again, for making some very tough choices that his own base did not want him to make. That takes courage, that takes leadership, and we saw the results of that courage and leadership saying no to his own base yesterday.[…]

[These are] decisions that he probably did not believe as a candidate he didn’t think he’d have to make…Going against his own ideological leanings to do what he believes he has to do.
– Joe Scarborough, MSNBC (via The Daily Kos)

“What I have said is we’re going encourage democracy in Pakistan, expand our non-military aid to Pakistan so that they have more of a stake in working with us, but insisting that they go after these militants. And if we have Osama bin Laden in our sights and the Pakistani government is unable or unwilling to take them out, then I think that we have to act, and we will take them out. We will kill bin Laden. We will crush al-Qaida. That has to be our biggest national security priority.”
– Barack Obama, Oct. 7, 2008 (via Crooks and Liars)

I sincerely hope that those people who believe that Obama is some sort of secret Muslim working in cahoots with those who hate America find themselves chastened. Those people are out there — I’ve seen the Tea Party signs and crazy blog posts/emails — and I hope they are eating crow today. (sorry, must pause to roll eyes from back of head after spontaneous eyeroll/head shake combo). Not that there’s anything wrong with being Muslim! It would be fine if Obama were Muslim. He could still defend America as many U.S. troops who are Muslim do everyday. But that’s been used as a swipe to undermine Obama’s patriotism – the whole “Obama is a secret Muslim hellbent on destroying America” and it’s clear now that people who believed that were clownin’ hard.
– Cheryl Contee, Jack & Jill Politics

Image courtesy of The New York Times

Look, part of the argument against this reduction is that it was reputational, for staying in Afghanistan. ‘We can’t look like America was driven out.’ ‘We can’t go away with our tail between our legs.’ All of those metaphors. Well, we just killed Osama bin Laden, and I think that takes a lot of the pressure away — a lot of the punch away from the argument that ‘oh, it will look like we walked away.’”
– Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), in an interview with ThinkProgress

Our economy is defined by greed. The top 1 percent of earners take home a quarter of income in this country. Wall Street banks are logging record profits while the Treasury Department professes helplessness at the fact that tens of millions of people are still losing their homes to those banks. Because of that foreclosure crisis, the stunning racial wealth gap—the typical black family has a dime for a dollar of wealth held by its white counterpart—will surely grow worse. The White House is paralyzed with inaction in the face of all of these challenges. But it can kill, so we are great.

We have the world’s most expensive health care system, and yet in 2009 infant mortality in the U.S. was higher than in 29 other countries and the worst among rich nations. Why? In large part because the infant mortality rate is so high among black and Latina women. We cannot find justice for them, but we can kill and call it justice.

We have a $14 trillion deficit. A massive giveaway to defense contractors lurks inside that number—a transfer of public funds that has been justified, in ways both explicit and implicit, by the evil visage of Osama Bin Laden. And now, Washington is as likely as not to make up the loss by taking apart the safety net that once created something like economic justice in America. But the president would like us to agree that we are great because we can kill.
– Kai Wright, Colorlines

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  • http://twitter.com/dimitrisnowden Dimitri Snowden

    I read an interesting quote the other day: “Celebrate death and He may mistake your exuberant joy as an open invitation to visit your house next”
    -Ghana-Imani Hilton

    ~Dimitri Snowden

  • http://nanettekelley.com Nanette

    Is Sirota serious? I’ve only seen a few photographs of people “celebrating” the death of bin Laden, but its ridiculous, considering US and Western history, to say that “This is bin Laden’s lamentable victory — he has changed America’s psyche from one that saw violence as a regrettable-if-sometimes-necessary act into one that finds orgasmic euphoria in news of bloodshed. In other words, he’s helped drag us down into his sick nihilism by making us like too many other bellicose societies in history — the ones that aggressively cheer on killing, as long as it is the Bad Guy that is being killed.”

    That’s inane. How many societies not only held picnics at lynchings, but took photos of all the happy people under the corpse and made postcards out of them? Or what about the jubilation in any war when “the Bad Guys” are defeated, sometimes killed in great mass? Or the many, many, many other instances when the jubilation was because the other guy “got his”? The only time we bleat about having “respect for life” or the “culture of death” is when other, non-white folks are killing us and “celebrating” it. Ridiculous article, that.

    Also, I agree with Carbone on Obama’s ability not to give away anything he doesn’t want to.

  • http://twitter.com/brownisthecolor Sophia A.

    A few hundred thousand civilians had to die for this. The infrastructures of a couple countries were destroyed for this. Extremism on all sides – torture on all sides – brutality and rape and slaughter on all sides – was tolerated and exacerbated for this.

    Angela Davis said our willful ignorance of the social injustices that lead people to do bad things – yes, even evil things – is one of the primary reasons the prison-industrial complex in this country has been able to expand and imprison so much of the world’s population. She also connected this directly to the United States’ military interventions abroad. So when we think about the horrifying display of people cheering after 9/11, we should also think about what social injustices would cause people to do so, and what our role in that is as citizens of the United States.

    The cheering that happened on May 1st is equally disgusting, in my eyes. It displayed that willful ignorance tenfold.

  • Brian Y.

    I was at the Penn State “Riot” after Bin Laden’s death. Riot was definitely an exaggeration of what really went on. The only sign of racism was when people chanted “F*** Osama,” which only went on for no more than a minute or two. As racist and derogatory as it looks and sounds, you have to remember that Bin Laden took credit for killing 3,000 people of different races and ethnicities, all of them civilians. Also, Bin Laden used his own people as bullet shields and children as walking bombs. The rally wasn’t all just “white trash,” either; there were whites, Blacks, Arabs, Indians, Hispanics and many more people of different backgrounds at this event. All of these people came out to celebrate the death of a man responsible for taking the lives of thousands without any remorse. The most moving thing was the patriotism. Honestly, unless you have been living in a box, you will realize that the overall mood in this country before Bin Laden’s death was dismal between a slumping economy, unemployment, the Medicare issue, etc. With Bin Laden’s death, for the first time in possibly a few years, I saw people in the streets with American flags, red, white and blue confetti, fireworks, musicians playing the National Anthem and so on. This was definitely a morale booster for this country, not because a man died, but because an enemy who was a great threat to national security for over 10 years was finally brought down. On an end note, we weren’t celebrating a lynching, or a public execution, or the death of one random, innocent Muslim; we were celebrating the death of a murderer. The last time I checked, this has been witnessed in a majority of world cultures for thousands of years. This isn’t anything new, people.

    • nina


      I also find it sort of offensive to say that only white Christian people felt happy at bin Laden’s death. There were numerous non-white, non-Christian, non-American victims of al Qaeda who felt pleased to see bin Laden gone, and I think they are frequently getting erased by both of the pro- and anti-celebrations commentary.

  • nina

    You know, I wasn’t thrilled at the sight of drunk college kids cheering that they’d get out of finals because of bin Laden’s death. But I still find it offensive to compare that to people who danced in the streets after 9/11. Cheering for the death of 3000 civilians versus cheering for the death of one mass murderer? Sorry, as distasteful as I might have found some of the reactions to bin Laden’s death, they are not equivalent.

    On a side note: didn’t it later come out that some of the “dancing in the street after 9/11” footage wasn’t real? I.e. media outlets took footage from some other street celebrations and falsely said it was in response to the attacks. Am I remembering this wrong?

  • miga

    The U.S. has never been shy about showing dead bodies, or rejoicing. Western culture has never been shy.
    Go back to history, look at the photos of hanged criminals, lynched innocents. Go farther back, to England, read of the bodies hung out to rot on crossroads as a warning for thieves.
    In WW2 people cheered at the mass death of millions on the other side.
    Shit like that was sold as POSTCARDS. People came out to see famous hangings; they came out to picnic at the Civil War.
    We never fell to the level of gloating at our enemies’ death. We were already there, but pretended like we weren’t. Now, there’s no use pretending.